I remember 1969 all too well. I once hitchhiked my way back to High Point from the Blueridge Parkway only a month after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. The first ride we got was by two flat landers— people who didn’t believe the world was round (because the book of Revelations [as they wrongly called it] said the angels would stand on the four corners of the earth) and thought the whole moonwalk thing was a Hollywood stunt that never really happened. My friend Doug who was with me did not recognize invincible ignorance when he saw it and tried to argue the driver out of this view. I whispered ‘Shut up Doug, we need this ride”. Doug was obviously warming up for his adult profession— he’s a lawyer.
‘First Man’ is a fine film, released in October so it might be considered for the Oscars. It stars Ryan Gosling of La, La Land fame, and indeed the camera in this movie focuses like a laser beam on his face wherever he goes. Most of the time, Ryan as Neil Armstrong doesn’t show a lot of emotion— except when Neil is thinking about his deceased little girl Karen who died of a brain tumor far too young. This movie is more of a psychological study of an astronaut under stress and pressure than it is a sci fi thriller. The tension in the film is not so much in the action that happens that we all know about— the death of Gus Grissom and other Gemini astronauts on the launchpad. The eventual walking on the moon. No, the tension comes from the study of how Neil and his wife Jan cope with the stress of death hanging like a sword of Damocles over the head of Neil, who has— to say the least, a very risky profession. The most dramatic scene in the film is when Neil’s wife forces him to talk to their two sons before he goes to the moon, and answer their questions including of course— ‘Will you be coming back’?This film is unlike The Martian, or Gravity or Apollo 13 in that it is more about the process of trial and error that led to the successful journey to the moon. As Neil says at one point— ‘we need to fail down here, so we don’t fail up there’. And fail they did. Astronauts lost their lives. In a real sense this whole trajectory was set in motion by the famous speech of JFK about ‘we choose to go to the moon’. The space race was on with the Soviets since the late 50s, and whoever got to the moon first, was seen as winning.
Ryan Gosling plays Neil Armstrong not as a space cowboy, or a man with too much testosterone running through his veins, but rather as a thoughtful, bright, brave, rather introverted man, who is singularly focused on doing his job for his country. This is very different than the sort of picture one gets of Matt Damon on Mars, for example. There are a lot of scenes in the shake rattle and roll machines then called spaceships. Don’t see this movie in 3D right after lunch, or you’ll be hurling, and I don’t mean hurling through space. I am not sure that this understated film will garner all the attention it deserves. It depends on the coming competition. But this is a film well worth seeing, whether you do or don’t know this history. It is family friendly, though there are some very sad scenes in the earlier part of the film. But our children need to learn this history. Our country used to reach for the stars. Now we spend more time digging up and polluting the earth.